Education: Opening the laboratory door to women

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The Independent Online
Why is there a dearth of women scientists in this country? A report published today, commissioned by the Office of Science and Technology, examines some of the reasons. The issues are complex, but a key factor is science education. The time-honoured gender divide between the arts and the sciences still prevails.

The advent of 'dual award', or 'double' science at GCSE in 1989 (whereby pupils take three mixed sciences, amounting to two GCSEs) has caused a dramatic decrease in the numbers taking separate science subjects at this level in favour of the combined option. Its net effects have been to increase the overall numbers of pupils studying the sciences, and to oblige girls to study the physical sciences, traditionally the domain of boys, at GCSE.

But the figures are still not very good. In 1992 science options were just over 8 per cent of the GCSE entry for girls and just over 9 per cent for boys - added to which, more girls than boys take GCSEs. The dual award system has not yet managed to halt the decline in the number of A-level students taking sciences, particularly physics.

And while the gender gap in numbers taking science A-level is beginning to narrow slightly, this is largely attributable to the fact that increasing numbers of boys, who have traditionally taken more science A-levels, are now choosing what are perceived as more 'lucrative' and 'secure' options, such as economics and business studies, rather than science.

But biology remains popular with girls and is the only science subject in which they consistently outnumber boys. Why?

'Science is very male orientated,' says Anne Campbell MP, vice-chair of the Parliamentary Office of Science and Technology. 'Girls have much more interest in health and environmental issues and boys are more interested in machines, and the way it is taught favours boys. Let's try ways of making it more appealing to girls - the chemistry of food, for example.'

John Sears, of Nottingham University's education department and author of a report for the Association for Science Education into science A-level uptake, is wary of gender traps: 'The danger is assuming that something is a girl's interest. You need to use a range of examples that covers life experiences. The dual awards do address that a bit, but as yet not enough.'

Girls and boys do seem to approach learning differently. Boys attribute success to ability and failure to lack of effort; girls see success as a result of effort and failure as a lack of ability. Boys tend to be more disruptive and in science practicals they hog the equipment.

Moves to single-sex education in science subjects have been mooted, and even adopted. But most educationists feel such a move would be a retrograde step for both girls and boys.

University results for the UK show that men still lead women in higher grades for maths and physics, with the sexes performing equally as well in engineering and chemistry, and women leading the men in biology and biochemistry. Initial findings from the Wellcome Trust of a survey of female undergraduate scientists point to the fact that undergraduate science teaching has failed to keep up with the innovations seen at secondary school.

While the revolutions in science education may not yet have percolated to higher education, there are signs that the changes have generated close scrutiny of how science is taught. Many schools have taken steps to broaden its appeal.

The Creativity in Science and Technology initiative is now well established, although girls still do not feature among the higher awards. And since 1993 girls have been able to take part in three-day sessions of problem-solving in science, engineering and technology. But making science accessible to girls still has a long way to go.